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You’Re Never Too Experienced to Fake It Till You Learn It

Dec 03, 2015

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  • LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

    Youre Never Too Experiencedto Fake It Till You Learn Itby Herminia Ibarra

    JANUARY 08, 2015

    Novices emulate favorite bosses and

    colleagues in an effort to look and talk as if

    they know what they are doing even when

    they have no clue. Its how they develop and

    grow (just as children do, first imitating their

    parents, then their peers). But this natural

    and efficient learning process tends to break

    down as people gain experience and stature.

    As we become more certain about what we

    know and who we are, the idea of

    mimicking others feels artificial, even

    distasteful. So we stick with whats natural

    and comfortable. And thats precisely what

    gets us in trouble as we hit career transitions

    that call for new and different ways of leading.

    In my research on how experienced managers

    and professionals step up to bigger leadership

    roles, I have observed both the value and the

    difficulty of returning to our youthful, fake-it-till-you-learn-it strategies. The only way to pick

  • up the softer skills that we need to lead with greater impact is to observe and emulate

    people who already have them, trying their strategies and behaviors on for size before making

    them our own.

    Take, for example, Clara, an HR specialist who was promoted a level above her boss to

    become her companys director of operations. The new assignment meant managing people

    who had been her superiors and overseeing functions, like finance, in which she had no

    expertise. I understood in theory that a good manager should be able to manage areas

    without understanding the technicalities of the work, she told me, but in practice this made

    me feel like a fraud.

    At a loss for what to do, Clara decided to emulate people she saw as effective leaders. When

    she met with the finance manager, one of her new direct reports, Clara greeted her warmly,

    putting an arm around her shoulders as shed seen her own boss do in the past. And in her

    first staff meeting, she tried out the blunt and direct way of speaking that shed frequently

    noticed other directors in the company using.

    I went home exhausted each day from playing the role of Director of Operations, she said.

    It was depressing even embarrassing at times. Still, she persisted, adjusting her tactics

    along the way. After about a year, in the course of leading a successful meeting, she realized

    she had grown into the role. As I began to gain confidence in my own ability to do this job, I

    also began to fall into a leadership voice that felt more like my own and less like an imitation

    of my former bosses.

    This kind of identity stretch-work comes more naturally to some people than to others.

    Psychologist Mark Snyder identified the profile and psychology of chameleons, people who

    are naturally able and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling like a

    fake. Chameleons have core selves defined by their values and goals but have no qualms

    about shifting shapes in pursuit of their objectives. Then there are the true-to-selfers, as I

    call them, those who view situational demands that push them away from what they do

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    naturally as threats to their authenticity. Their self-definitions are more all-encompassing,

    including not only their innermost values, but also their leadership styles, speech, dress, and

    demeanor.

    A quintessential chameleon, author Michael

    Lewis famously describes how imitation

    helped him transform himself from an

    inexperienced trainee into a highly successful

    bond salesman in his best-selling book Liars

    Poker. Thinking, as yet, was a feat beyond my

    reach. I had no base, no grounding, Lewis

    writes. So I listened to the master and

    repeated what I heard, as in kung fu. It

    reminded me of learning a foreign language. It all seemed strange at first. Then one day, you

    catch yourself thinking in the language. Suddenly words you never realized you knew are at

    your disposal. Finally you dream in the language.

    People gravitate more readily to chameleon strategies like Lewis earlier in their careers, when

    it is easier to accept and express ignorance. With experience and success, our habitual ways of

    thinking and doing become more entrenched and our work identities solidify. We value

    authenticity, so we continue to act in accordance with our sense of who we are even when

    it becomes patently ineffective. Unfortunately, the effort we put into protecting our true

    identities can really hold us back later in our careers, when were trying to build on past

    successes to take on new and bigger roles or responsibilities as leaders.

    Suppose you have become known (and been rewarded) for your ability to use rigorous

    analysis to figure out solutions to organizational problems. What happens when youre

    suddenly expected to start selling your good ideas to diverse, skeptical stakeholders outside

    your area of expertise? Intellectually, you know you need to persuade and inspire, but you

  • just cant bring yourself to do it. So, you put more work into your facts and figures and

    when your ideas repeatedly go unheard, you conclude that the organization and its key

    players are political.

    A better option is to look around to identify people who are good at selling their ideas and

    watch carefully what they do and how they do it. People who use this strategy concentrate

    their efforts first on reproducing the behavior they have observed, even if they dont fully

    understand it. Then with practice, like Lewis, they try to get inside the brain of another

    person. In their minds, theyre not being inauthentic theyre simply evolving so they can

    get the job done. After a while, they find they have acted their way into a new way of

    thinking. They havent just developed their persuasion skills; they now value a different way

    of working and see themselves as the kind of people who are good at getting others on board.

    By definition, transformative learning starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors.

    When we are working at improving our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass. It

    helps us navigate choices and work toward our goals. But when we are looking to change our

    game, a rigid understanding of authenticity is an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth. By

    viewing ourselves as works in progress, we multiply our capacity to learn, avoid being

    pigeonholed, and ultimately become better leaders. Were never too experienced to fake it till

    we learn it.

    Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior and the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership andLearning at Insead. She is the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press,

    2015) and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business Review Press,

    2003). Follow her on Twitter @HerminiaIbarra and visit her website.

    This article is about LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

  • Related Topics: LEADERSHIP TRANSITIONS

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    Valencia Woodard 10 months ago

    Best article EVER!

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